Depression – Drug-Free Therapy with Oriental Medicine

By Shihan Mary Bolz

An inseparable body/mind continuum as a concept is one of the main characteristics of Eastern thought. While the body-mind connection seems to be a new approach to wellness in the West, it has always been considered to be a standard concept without question in classical Oriental medicine. Mental diseases were not treated differently from any other disorder.

The Chinese term “yu zheng” (depression) refers to stagnation on both a physical and mental plane. In Oriental medicine, it is addressed with the same diagnostic and therapeutic means as diseases that would be considered to have entirely physical origins in the West. It is the absence of a body/mind dichotomy that is at the core of Chinese medical theory and practice.

A traditional Oriental medicine doctor will conduct the same type of inquiry, observation, pulse taking, tongue diagnosis and exam for a patient with the chief complaint of depression as he/she would for a patient with a back ache with some variations specific to each complaint. The method of treatment would be the same modalities: herbs, acupuncture, moxibustion, dietary and exercise modifications. The modalities are the same, but the prescriptions of each modality would be entirely different. Not only would the prescriptions for depression and back ache be different, but the individual prescription for all patients with the same diagnosis, such as depression, would vary according to each individual’s underlying cause or pattern. Conversely, the same herbal prescription could be used for a person with depression as the person with a backache, depending on the underlying cause or pattern of those two individuals. In other words, “Different medicine for the same disease and the same medicine for different diseases,” sometimes applies. Such a statement is often found in classical Chinese medical texts.

There have been different schools of thought on Chinese medicine as represented by the “Yi Jing” (the Book of Change), the “Dao De Jing”, and the “Nei Jing” (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor) but all are based on the concept of yin and yang as equal forces. Therefore, no matter what the school of thought, Chinese medicine scholars usually agree that the mental and physical aspects of the human body are engaged in a process of constant movement and transformation. Any physical process has mental implications and vice versa. What is the connecting entity? That is “Qi” (in Chinese) or “Ki” (in Japanese), the life-force energy. Only academically can “Qi” be differentiated into the physical and mental. Mental energy is defined in traditional Oriental Medicine (TOM) as a more refined form of physical energy. Traditional Oriental treatments for mental diseases, therefore, lie inside the realm of standard diagnostic and therapeutic procedure. Even in contemporary China, persons with depression, anxiety and mental diseases will visit doctors who specialize in general practice or “internal medicine,” that is, the treatment of organ disorders with Chinese herbs, minerals, and animal materials.

Therefore “Yu Zheng” or mental depression, in classical Chinese medical texts refers to a wide array of symptoms usually attributed to stagnant Qi. In the Inner Canon, it states, “in a patient full of grief and sadness, the Qi becomes depressed and does not move. “

Mental depression may be the beginnings of physical manifestations, such as pains in the sides of the body, the sensation of a lump in the throat and can even advance to severe symptoms of phlegm and blood stagnation such as tumors or other chronic diseases. The affected person may be very emotional, may sigh a lot, may complain about moving pain, cannot point out where the pain is, and may have a feeling of distending pain. A female patient may develop irregular menstruation and PMS (premenstrual syndrome) symptoms. Both male and female patients can experience decreased libido or sexual dysfunction. Depression and other emotional disorders are often maladies of the liver, since it is the most sensitive organ in emotional imbalance. This can lead to disturbances in digestion with a myriad of digestive symptoms, such as acid reflux, and further lead to disturbances of the heart and other organs.

About sighing-sighing can be a symptom of what is described as “liver Qi stagnation” in Oriental medical terminology. The action of sighing relates to two different types of emotions. One is weariness and one is relief. When a person is not happy, they sigh to express that feeling. Then relief can occur after sighing because it forces a person to take a deep breath. A deep breath gets the energy and blood flowing again and relieves the stagnation and the person will feel better. Taking a deep breath is a manifestation of the body trying to adjust itself. Breathing exercises and exercise of any form relieves depression by moving the stagnated energy inside the body.

The traditional Oriental concept of health is closely tied to the presence of an uninterrupted flow of energy. Depression, the manifestation of “depressed Qi flow” has always been taken seriously by Oriental medicine physicians. There are numerous influential physicians from the long line of past dynasties in China who have contributed a rich tapestry of medical thought and clinical experience of herbal formulas that are frequently used in the treatment for the different patterns and underlying causes of depression. Many of these formulas regulate various aspects of the liver network, which is in charge of the harmonious distribution of Qi – the life-force energy flow of the human body/mind complex.

What about here in the West? Does Oriental medicine work for depression? Recently, the National Institution of Health (NIH) funded a pilot study on the effects of acupuncture on depression in women. The results of this study showed that acupuncture was at least as effective as either drugs or psychotherapy and there are no side effects! When acupuncture is combined with Chinese herbal medicine, diet therapy and various other lifestyle modifications, the effects are even greater. In addition, Oriental medical treatment for depression doesn’t just alleviate the symptoms, but seeks to find and then eradicate the root cause of the disease.

What about combining Western and Oriental medicine? Absolutely yes. In many cases such a combination is the best and quickest way. Chinese herbs and acupuncture can be used to lessen or eliminate the side-effects of Western antidepressants while a certain amount of psychotherapy can help treatment go faster. For those who want to get off their antidepressants by using Chinese medicine, they should discuss this with their Oriental medical practitioner and prescribing physician and work out a withdrawal schedule. There are safe, effective and drug-free therapies for depression and Oriental medicine can be one of the most effective.

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